Ever since Riverdance emerged in 1994, Irish dancing has enjoyed a global audience and an international stature like never before. But, as revealed this week, there are also cultural bigots who believe that it should be confined to the Irish or those of Irish descent. That’s a bit like saying that only Austrian musicians should be allowed play Mozart or only English people should act in a Shakespearean drama.
Morgan Bullock, a 20 year old student from Richmond, Virginia in the United States, posted her Irish dancing routine on TikTok and Instagram at the weekend and it quickly went viral, prompting tens of thousands to comment favourably on her remarkable skill and grace.
But it also attracted some abusive and racist responses online and, most worryingly, a chorus of disapproval on Twitter and other social media from some Irish-Americans. In response, Leo Varadkar and Riverdance creator Bill Whelan were among the thousands who tweeted messages of support from Ireland. The Irish embassy in Washington also issued a statement saying it was fortunate “to have such talent here devoting themselves to Irish dancing.”
The Taoiseach has invited her to dance in next year’s St Patrick’s Day parade in Ireland. That is exactly the right thing to do because it makes clear that, as nation, we abhor discrimination on the grounds of race or ethnicity. The invitation is all the more potent, coming from a government leader of mixed race.
If she comes over next year, It won’t be the first time Morgan has been to Ireland. As she explains in an Irish Examiner interview with her today, Irish dance has taken her all over the world and she has visited Ireland many times. Morgan’’s words are as graceful as her steps, telling reporter Ellie O’’Byrne: “People are getting cultural appropriation and cultural appreciation confused.”
It is gratifying yet disturbing to note the difference in the attitude demonstrated by Irish people towards her in Ireland and the negative comments from people who claim to be Irish-American. “That doesn’t represent what I know to be Irish people, from my own first-hand experience,” she says. “Any time I’ve been to Ireland, I’ve been welcomed and had so much love and support from Irish people.”
That willingness to celebrate diversity may, strangely enough, be partly attributable to Riverdance. Twenty years ago a series of Riverdance performances were held at The Point theatre in Dublin to raise money for an anti-racism campaign. Among the cast were Russian ballet dancers, Spanish flamenco dancers, African-American tap-dancers and a Bulgarian musician. Ireland was a far less culturally diverse place then so this was new territory.
The performances didn’t just raise money. They raised awareness, with the creation of Artists Against Racism in Ireland, a project developed together with Comhlamh, the returned volunteers group. That helped grow a national campaign in schools, sports clubs and other cultural centres which led to an attitudinal shift that still resonates today.